Abbey Road

I was still feeling the effects of the lunar eclipse in the early hours of Monday on Tuesday morning. Not in a spiritual way, I was just knackered from staying up. However Croxden, the first stop on my rambles around the North of the shire last week, was a sight for my sore eyes. The tiny village is dominated by the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1176 by Bertram de Verdun of Alton Castle (1) for the souls of his predecessors and successors.

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdon. Not open to the public. As I found out...

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdun.

What is left of the semi-circular East end of the abbey church, unusual in England and probably inspired by the French designs the Abbey’s patrons would have known, lies to one side of the road that someone decided to cut through the site. The nave, south transept and other monastic buildings lie on the other and you can see a plan showing what is still visible above ground and what has been lost here. In 1288, a priest from Walsall called William de Schepisheved, was given the task of chronicling life inside and out of these Abbey walls.  He worked backwards to 1066 and contemporaneously until 1320 when the entries in his hand stop, although the chronicle continues until 1374.

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn't see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn’t see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

We tweeted and shared our photos of the lunar eclipse. William the Chronicler recorded the celestial events he witnessed in the annals. Understandably for him and those of his time, eclipses were considered bad omens, often linked to any conflict, pestilence or bad weather that occurred. William records a solar eclipse in July 1330 and connects it to the floods and unseasonable weather which occurred two months before and for three months after, resulting in a late harvest, “…they had scarcely reaped the last of their corn with the greatest toil on the feast of All Saints and they had at last collected their peas into barns and outhouses on the feast of the blessed apostle Andrew. And what is so remarkable to see and hear, on the feast of All Saints and of St Martin fresh peas in their shells were given to the convent in the refectory instead of pears and apples”.  Another notable event in July 1301 appears in the Abbey’s annals describing how, “on the day of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, about the sixth hour, a great earthquake took place, to such an extent that all the persons in the convent, being at their first refection, were dismayed with a sudden and unlooked-for trembling”.

The chronicle also documents a connection between the abbey and Lichfield. William recorded that on Easter Eve in 1313, the great bell of the Monastery was broken by mischance and a man called Henry Michel came from Lichfield with his youths to cast another. It was reported that his first attempt failed but he started afresh and completed by the Festival of All Saints. It seems likely that this was Henry the Bellfounder who granted Lichfield’s Franciscan Friars the springs near Aldershawe which would later supply water to the whole of the city.

Plaque on Lichfield's Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

Plaque on Lichfield’s Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

As well as life at the abbey, Death inevitably also features in the chronicle. There are the descriptions of the burials of the Verdun family including that of Lady Joan Furnival, eldest daughter and heir of Theobald de Verdun, who on October 2nd 1334, “was taken by untimely death in childbirth; for on the day she died she was only thirty years and almost two months” and was “buried near her ancestors between Lord Nicholas de Verdun, son of the founder, and her ancestor and Lord John de Verdun, her great-grandfather”. Their now empty stone coffins can be seen alongside the ruins at the east end of the church.

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Stone coffins at Croxden.

The entry for 1349 simply and bleakly says, ” There was a great pestilence throughout the whole world.” Nothing more. No indication of how many succumbed to and how many survived the plague here in Croxden.  The following year, 1350, another single sentence notes, “This year was a jubilee” (2), and then there is nothing until the harrowing entry made in 1361 which records, ” A second pestilence took place, and all the children that were born since the first pestilence died.” In the absence of detail, I did a little reading between the lines. After ten years, plague had reared its ugly head again and although overall mortality rates were lower than in the first outbreak, the disproportionate number of deaths amongst the young in this second wave led to it being known as ‘the Children’s Plague’. Was this was because those who had survived the plague the first time around had some sort of immunity that the children born subsequently did not? I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone does for sure. In 1369, another ‘visitation’ is recorded.

West front of the Abbey Church

Five years later the Chronicle ends but not before recording two further natural disasters affecting the Abbey – a flood destroying all the grass growing near the water together with all the bridges across the River Churnet, and a tempest which took the lead off the dormitory, infirmary, and abbot’s chamber, throwing down half the trees in the orchard. Plague and poor harvests took their toll and by the end of the fourteenth century, the Abbey was in decline.

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One thing that doesn’t seem to appear in the Chronicle is the ‘fact’ that King John’s Heart is buried at Croxden. Possibly because it isn’t. I first came across the claim in Arthur Mee’s guide to Staffordshire and since have found several other sources saying the same, including William White’s Directory of Staffordshire (1851), Samuel Lewis’ Topical Directory of England (1831) and The Gentleman’s Magazine (1823). Trouble is other, more reliable sources say it’s at Croxton, Leicestershire including the Charter Roll of 1257. I’m sorry to say, I think we have to concede this one to our foxy neighbours.

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from "HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from “HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

The King’s bowels were also said to have been removed at the time of his death and buried somewhere in Croxton, and to quote Simon Schama, their removal left John, ‘as gutless in death as he was said to have been in life’. The majority of John’s body rests in Worcester Cathedral, although more in pieces than at peace. When the tomb was opened in 1797, it became apparent that the bones had been disturbed, with the jaw lying by an elbow and all but four of the teeth and most of the finger bones missing – the King’s hands presumably having fallen into the hands of souvenir hunters.

The end of the road for Croxden came on 7 September 1538 when Dr. Thomas Leigh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey and the roof was removed to prevent the Abbot and resident six monks from continuing to use the site. Although Croxden Abbey has been privately owned since then, it has been under state guardianship since 1936. Today, the ruins are cared for by English Heritage and it’s absolutely free to go and explore them (although I’m sure they’d appreciate a donation). Unlike staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse, I can highly recommend it. More information on visiting and directions here.

Notes

(1) I had no idea there was a castle at Alton until I went to Alton with a friend and saw a sign for it. As we found out, it is not open to the public.

(2) I suspected that a jubilee in this context did not mean what I thought it did so I of course googled it and discovered that jubilee years had been started by Pope Boniface in 1300, and to be celebrated every hundred years thereafter. However, Pope Clement VI later amended this as people’s average lifespan was too short and so many would not live to see one. Plus there was money to be made from pilgrims. Pope Paul II later amended the frequency of jubilee years to be every twenty five. For anyone interested, the next one will be in 2025.

Sources:

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/094-2009web.pdf

Self-representation of Medieval Religious Communities  Anne Müller, Karen Stöber

CROXDEN ABBEY: ITS HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES.

BY CHARLES LYNAM )(North Staffordshire Field Club)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 89, Part 2

Lily's Medieval Jigsaw Puzzle

Recently, twelve year old Lily made a very interesting discovery in Lichfield. Here’s her account of how the contents of a cardboard box found in an old gaol cell turned out to be far more exciting than than anyone could have imagined….

“In November 2014, I went to the Lichfield Gaol Cells in the Guildhall. It was a Lichfield Discovered event, and we were going to look and see if we could find any graffiti, names, or dates on the gaol cell doors. About 7 or 8 of us came to the event all in all, I came with my Dad. Everyone else managed to find lots of writing and names on the doors, I didn’t find much. Near the end of the session, we were looking inside the third jail cell, the one that is not normally open to the public. My Dad pointed out 2 boxes of old looking tiles on the floor, we took a quick look, but we didn’t pay much attention to them.

Tiles 1

Tiles in cardboard boxes in gaol cell now used for storage

The next time we came to the gaol cells was on 21st February, we had come back to see if there was any more graffiti that we had missed, also to take a second look at the boxes of tiles (Jo at the museum said it was ok). This time I had come with my Mom and there was around 8 people that turned up this time. Me and my Mom started looking through the tiles, we had picked about 5 up and we laid them on a chair to photograph them, but they werereally dusty so we couldn’t see if there were any other patterns on them.

There were so many tiles that we couldn’t fit any more on, we decided to move all of the tiles into the 4th cell, onto a wooden bed that the prisoners used to sleep in, (personally I would NEVER think of sleeping on one of them). We started taking some more tiles out of the box and moving them onto the bed. We moved them a few at a time, because the box was too heavy to lift. I had realised that there were a few tiles with the same pattern on. I really wanted to get a better look at what the patterns looked like, so my mom went to Wilko (just up the road) to buy 2 paintbrushes. When she got back we started brushing off the dust and dirt from the tiles we had got out, we could see the patterns a lot clearer. We had nearly finished emptying out the first box of tiles, and at the bottom my Mom found a bit of tile with ‘Lichfield Friary’ written on the back. She showed it to Kate and she said “Maybe it came from the old Friary!” and then we all got really excited!

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Tile with Lichfield Friary writing on the back

We had found lots of bone shaped tiles that were exactly like the one that said ‘Lichfield Friary’ on it.

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“Bone” shaped tiles

Whatever the floor was, it was really big. We had found LOADS of tiles that looked the same, and maybe they belonged to the same floor. I started trying to see if any of the tiles might fit together, there were loads of circular tiles, some with patterns on, and some without. There was one round tile, with a triangle and circles intertwined in a pattern. There were also pizza shaped tiles, without a tip, like someone had taken a pizza and cut the middle out with a cookie cutter, if you get what I mean. Those tiles had a kind of moon, with a starfish shape in the middle.

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Circular “pizza” tiles with moon and star pattern

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Plain “pizza” tiles

We had found one of these tiles that was complete and one that was broken, but fitted back together again. All the rest were broken, but I managed to get a full circle out of the fragments we had found. It was like a massive jigsaw-puzzle, but I did it in the end, and what was even more exciting, was that the circular tile fit perfectly inside the ring of pizza shaped tiles! Same with the tiles with no pattern on, but we didn’t find another circular tile.

There was also another set of tiles. We had found about 8-10 of the same type, they were square, and they all had the same pattern on, the kind that can make 2 different types of patterns, depending on which way you put them.

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Square tiles with pattern – my faves 🙂

Most of them were complete, apart from 3-4 of them which we only had corners of. I put them together, and they nearly made a 9 square pattern. These were my favourite tiles, and I hoped we found some more of them, we only had half a box or so left to get out. We did find a couple more of these tiles eventually. We finished emptying out the box, and then we started taking pictures of all the tiles. There wasn’t much time left, so we took all of the photos really quickly. As a result, not many of the pictures were very good. And the light was quite dim in the cells, so the light wasn’t the best either.

It was nearing the end of the session, so we had to put all of the tiles back in the boxes. I couldn’t help thinking that the tiles were from the old medieval Friary. At least some of them.

Kate asked me if I could do some research to see if the tiles were from the Friary, Me and my Mom went to the Lichfield Records Office, to go and look at ‘The Lichfield Friary’ by P. Laithwaite, which was reprinted from the Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeological Society where a report of Councillor T. Moseley’s findings from his exploration of the site in 1933 was given.

Laithwaite BAS 1934

D77/23/67 Copyright Lichfield Record Office

There were only 6 pages in the book. Page 5 had a drawing of some if the exact tiles we had found (the ones that looked like pizzas with the middle cut out) some with patterns, and some without.

EPSON scanner image

D77/23/67 The Lichfield Friary by P.Laithwaite Copyright Lichfield Records Office

Me and my mom were like O-O (AMAZED!). On the next page (page 6) there was a drawing on 3 tiles with different patterns on, all of which we had found in the box of tiles! 😀 (and my favourite one, the one that we had got like a 9 block square of the floor.)

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D77/23/67 Drawing of square tiles from The Lichfield Friary by P.Laithwaite Copyright Lichfield Records Office

We had found what we had come looking for, proof that the tiles in the boxes were Medieval from The Grey Friars’ Church at The Friary!”

Note – this is not where the story ends! Lily is having an afternoon on the tiles with Jo Wilson, Lichfield City Council Museum and Heritage Officer and medieval tiles expert, Karen Slade this week, so look out for an update soon. Lily’s doing such a great job – the initial discovery, the ongoing research, and writing it all up afterwards – that I’m thinking of joining the Right Revd Jonathan Gledhill in retirement and leaving Lichfield Lore in her more than capable young hands.

 

Far From the Madding Crowd

Once, when Cuthbert Brown was a boy and the circus came to town (sorry, city), one of the elephants died and was buried on Levett’s Fields. Mr Lichwheeld and I had joked that we should organise a community archaeological dig to look for Nelly but with work starting on the demolition of Lichfield’s Fire Station recently, this may prove unnecessary.

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Demolition of Lichfield fire station tower, Levett’s Fields January 2015.Photo by Joe Gomez

Welephant wins 2011 Lichfield Pancake Race. Image from Lichfield Live

Nelly is not the only elephant with links to Lichfield Fire Station. Image from Lichfield Live

In the pre-Friary Road days, the Big Top also used to pitch up at the Bowling Green fields. Presumably at that time the Bowling Green pub was still a seventeenth century timber framed building. The only image of this I can find online is included in the 1732 engraving of the south west prospect of the city, as seen here on Staffordshire Past Track (zoom in and it’s the building in the foreground, beneath the central spire of the cathedral). The pub was rebuilt in the 1930s but the Victoria County History mentions that a clubhouse still in existence in the 1980s may be the same one which existed in 1796. Definitely worth a trip to the pub.

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas' (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

The Friary prior to development. Taken from Gareth Thomas’ (GIS Officer for Lichfield District Council) Pinterest site

One of the best things about looking through old newspapers is that you come across stories that you wouldn’t even think to look for. Whilst searching for more information on the Bowling Green, I came across the following obituary from March 1820.

At Lichfield, aged 67, John Edwards, the Hermit of the Bowling Green in that city. He came to the neighbourhood in the prime of life – a perfect stranger, retiring with disgust or disappointment from other and brighter scenes of life; but further particulars have never transpired respecting his history. The subscriptions of the benevolent have contributed to shed a comparative comfort on his latter days. A short time previous to his decease, he published a short “Essay on Freemasonry”. The medical gentlemen gratuitously attended his during his illness.

So many questions about Mr Edwards arise from this small snippet but I suppose if further particulars respecting his history had not transpired back then, the chance of uncovering anything now is fairly slim. Is it fair to say that Mr Edwards’ attempts to distance himself from society seem to have inadvertently made him into a celebrity of sorts? I wonder what became of his Essay on Freemasonry?

Whatever Mr Edwards’s reasons for preferring a life a solitude, it seems that in the eighteenth century it could be a career choice. Of sorts. Apparently, always on the lookout for opportunities to impress or outdo their friends and neighbours,eighteenth century land owners employed professional hermits to sit and be mystical amidst their fake temples and other follies. I found an example in the form of Mr Powys of Morcham (Morecambe?) near Preston, Lancashire, who advertised an annuity of £50 per annum for life to,

…any man who would undertake to live seven years underground, without seeing anything human, and to let his let his toe and finger nails grow, with his hair and beard, during the whole time.

Board and lodging was provided in the form of apartments said to be, ‘very commodious with a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the occupier pleased, and provisions served from his (Mr Powys’) own table’.  By 1797, it was reported that the ‘hermit’, a labouring man,  was in his fourth year of residence, and that his large family were being maintained by Mr Powys. Just what quality of life must a man with a family have been leaving behind to agree to live like this? If this was about showing off to others, it’s curious that Powys stipulated that his ‘hermit’ was to live without seeing anything human.

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

Great Haywood Cliffs by Jason Kirkham

In August 2002, around two hundred years after this dark appointment, notices appeared in The Guardian, The Stage, The London Review of Books and the Staffordshire Newsletter, advertising for an ‘ornamental hermit’ to take up residence at the Great Haywood Cliffs near the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire, as part of an exhibition called ‘Solitude’. The Shugborough Hermit would be required to live in a tent near to the cliffs (living inside them was deemed too risky) and only had to commit to the weekend of the 21st and 22nd September 2002. Out of  two hundred and fifty enquiries from all over the world,  artist Ansuman Biswas was chosen and I’d love to hear from anyone who visited him at Shugborough that weekend. Mr Biswas went on to spend forty days and forty nights alone in the Gothic Tower at Manchester Museum in 2009, with the aim of becoming, ‘symbolically dead, renouncing his own liberty and cutting himself off from all physical contact”‘.

I think I’d rather run away and join the circus.

Sources:

The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Gordon Campbell,  Oxford University Press 2013

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2205188.stm